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Campaign for the Wilton Library

The Architects (Archive Page–Historical Information Only)

The Wilton Library:
A study in modernism

By Donna Bertoli
Editor, Wilton Villager

[This article originally appeared in The Wilton Villager. It is reprinted here with permission.]

“I think of details in two senses,” wrote the late architect and designer Eliot Noyes. “There are first the details of joints, connections, the attachment of different materials to each other, the turning of corners, the physical relating of parts of the building to each other. But I also think of larger special elements as details — such things as stairs and fireplaces …”

Noyes was, in essence, discussing the parts that make up the whole. “Details alone,” he wrote, “… cannot make architecture. Such details must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it.”

Few people consider the thought that went into Noyes’ design of one of the most important — if not the most popular — buildings in our town, The Wilton Library. Completed in 1974, the Wilton Library is a study in modernism. It is a combination of details that, in Noyes’ own words, are “simple, practical, efficient, articulate, appropriate, neat, handsome, and contributory to the clarity of all relationships.”

“It’s truly a modern building done in the tradition of the modernists of that era,” said Ryszard Szczypek, the architect who has designed an addition to Noyes’ building. For Szczypek, as well as partner Tai Soo Kim of the architectural firm Tai Soo Kim Partners, the undertaking has been both an honor and a challenge — to design an addition that will both accommodate the growth of the library over the next 30 years, and remain true to Noyes’ original design and vision.

“The great challenge, as is with adding on to every great building, is to do no harm,” said Malcolm Whyte, retired architect and chair of the library building committee. “But I really think we have the right architect. He is doing a superb job of designing a building that will fill library’s needs for next 30 years and of respecting the existing building and its architecture — respecting Eliot Noyes.”

Noyes (b. Boston, Mass., Aug. 12, 1910; d. New Canaan, 18 July 1977) studied at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., earning a bachelor’s degree in classics in 1932 and a master’s in architecture in 1938. He then joined the firm of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge. From 1939 to 1946, with a break for service in World War II, during which he served as a fighter pilot, he was director of industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In 1947, he founded his own architectural and industrial design practice, Eliot Noyes & Associates, on Country Club Road in New Canaan. An advocate of functional modernism, Noyes’s work is firmly grounded in the tradition of Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier.

“After the war, (Noyes) lived in New York City, and later moved to New Canaan, along with many of the great architects of that period,” Whyte said. “These were all great leaders: Breuer, Gropius …” During his 30 years in New Canaan, Noyes designed a number of area office buildings, schools, and the Wilton Library.

Yet his work reached far beyond this area through his public buildings, most notably the IBM Building (1963) in Garden City, N.Y., and industrial design. In the early 1940s, Noyes met Tom Watson, Jr., a fellow air force pilot and son of the founder of IBM. The friendship blossomed into a partnership, in which Noyes designed a number of buildings for IBM and became involved as a design consultant for the company.

“Through product design, architecture, and graphics … he led IBM to be a leader in design, which was remarkable at that time period when very few companies were interested in design,” said Whyte. Noyes personally designed the “IBM Selectric Typewriter” in 1977 — the gold standard of the industry at that time. “There is a lot of his design influence in all of the IBM products,” Whyte said. Noyes was also a consultant to Mobil Oil, designing the prototype to its gas stations, as well as its cylindrical petrol pumps, in 1968.

“I remembered the library building when we got the call from (Malcolm Whyte),” said Szczypek, recalling the day his firm was asked to interview for the addition project. “Immediately I remembered it because it was a very striking image in my mind … I was thrilled because I knew it was a special place.” Shortly after Whyte’s call, he went to the library to take some photos. “I came back and told my partner, “you’re going to like this one, meaning this project was rich in architectural material.”

In terms of style, the two architects — Noyes and Szczypek — are simpatico. “It’s a modern building and our design senses here in the office vibrate with the sympathies of modern aesthetics. “Further,” said Szczypek, “I’ll say that Eliot Noyes built a building that’s very easy to add on to because we’re not fighting with his aesthetics.”

The project will nearly double the size of the library by adding a two-story addition.

“Eliot Noyes’ design is a one-story building … That was one of the challenges we had,” said Szczypek. “Right now the library is 17,000 square feet and we’re more than doubling that. The site is really small, so the only way you can do it is to create a two-story addition. How do you make a two-story sit next to Noyes’s one story?”

Szczypek met the challenge by setting back the second floor addition “so you don’t see it. We tried to maintain the low horizontalness of that building and I think we’ve achieved that.”

Szczypek also noted that he will be using building materials similar to what Noyes used, and continue an architectural style in which Noyes’ “brought the outdoors in.”

“For example, glass. What Eliot Noyes did is, rather than put windows in a wall, he said ‘I’m going to use huge sheets of glass, as large as can physically be manufactured.’ He made transparent walls, solid brick walls … he composed all of the vertical walls using sheets of glass or sheets of brick. He used sheets of drywall, sheets of stone, sheets of carpet or sheets of wood. You have all of this very simple composition vertically and also horizontally. How the two planes meet is very interesting.”

Photo by Alex von Kleydorff, Wilton Villager

To accentuate the composition of planes and to underscore his style, Szczypek explained, “Noyes bypassed one plane with another. So he had a glass wall running in one direction, against a brick wall. However, the wall would not stop at the glass but go through it and continue on the other side. You can stand inside and see the white brick wall on the inside and on the outside.”

The brick used in Szczypek’s addition will be white, in keeping with the current style. The addition will also incorporate floor-to-ceiling glass walls, “except with more modern techniques and materials,” he said.

“We are introducing some more skylights to bring some more light into the interior of the building. We’re fully enclosing his entrance courtyard … making it a continuous loop. We think there’s some additional benefit to that and I think Eliot Noyes would support us. We need the additional square footage … and the idea of a courtyard has been used by modernists many times.”

One major departure is the lighting. “The lighting will be completely different,” said Szczypek. “Just like glass technology, lighting has advanced a great deal. Lamps used to be much bigger and clunkier. Now, you can get much more output out of a smaller lamp.” He added that Noyes, a pioneer in industrial design, would have used the lighting available today.

One heavily used part of the library — the children’s area — will be doubled in size with the new addition. “It’s going to be in the area you can get through from the entrance without traipsing through the library,” added Szczypek. “Under our arrangement, people can bring kids and go from main entrance right into the (children’s) area. The main entrance now is on northeast corner. It’s going to move to the northwest corner.”

Some rooms will be completely partitioned off, acoustically separated and treated. “In the large community room you’ll be able to have a lecture or have a concert. The teen room is going to be completely separated. Right now it’s off the fireplace area.” Being the father of two teenagers, Szczypek said, he understands teens want their privacy. “What we’ve done is create a room that can be monitored by staff, but is acoustically separate.”

The history room will change locations to the second level, “so researchers can go up into a separate research area with plenty of room to spread out and maybe even have a group meeting.”

These are some of the most significant changes. Yet, the feel of the main floor will stay the same. “The building almost feels like a museum, with paintings on the walls, with freestanding sculpture. We’re making sure there’s still a lot of wall space. If you look at the model, we even clipped some graphics of paintings so that people could see there will be lighting on the walls.”

Ryszard Szczypek graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University in 1974. He also studied at the Architectural Association, the oldest independent architecture school in England. Some of the architects that have most influenced him include Louie Kahn, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his partner, Tai Soo Kim.

“I really enjoy working with him so much,” he said of Kim. “It’s been a very fruitful and joyous experience.”

Asked which buildings he most admires, he mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Church in Chicago. “It’s a church, and yet he does these things with light and planes and volumes, without needing to put all kinds of frosting on it, to make people feel they’re in a contemplative place.”

In defining the ideal architecture, what resonates most for him, said Szczypek, “is an ancient Greek play in which there is an architect who says, ‘you go through life and see a lot of silent buildings. Occasionally you run across a building that really speaks, but even more rarely are those that you find that sing.’ That has struck me as one of the most beautiful statements I’ve ever heard. I think the Wilton Library is one of those buildings.”

To learn more about the design of the library addition, visit Tai Soo Kim Partners on line at www.tskp.com.

Donna Bertoli can be reached at dbertoli@thehour.com